In attendance: Gareth Fenley ‘83, Anne Harrington ‘83, Jed Johnson ‘80, Julie Kaufman ‘80, Ellen Orleans ‘83, Carl Ratner ‘80, Jeffrey Winters ‘82, Elizabeth Wright ‘80, Anonymous Gay Man ‘82, Nancy Cooper ‘51 AB, ‘54 AM
Carl Ratner: I basically came to Oberlin because the Gay Union was listed in the catalog. I had been sexually active in Memphis in my high school days and I wanted to go someplace where I could feel comfortable. I came here, put my bags in my room, and went right to the Gay Union, which was locked.
Gareth Fenley: That would have been what year when you came here?
Carl Ratner: 1975, because I was here for five years. And the first official Gay Union thing that I remember was on the freshman open-house day. The Gay Union was open. I suppose there were ten or twelve of us there. It was really a relatively small group in the Gay Union, especially my first year, but Karen Dennis was there. She was one of the people in that room, on that day in September of 1975. It was the end of a period in which the anti-discrimination clause was being debated and ultimately passed.
I have no idea what was at the Gay Union before I arrived there. I imagined that there was basically nothing, and that we created and built it, but I imagine that every year it seems that way to entering students. Over the period in which I was involved in the Gay Union up until 1979, the Gay Union developed its film series, which became very popular. It was very interesting to me because the series was really at its height when I was the president of the Gay Union. So I introduced the film series, and that was a way for me to come out to any number of people. It was the easiest possible way to do it. I would always look out and see about two or three surprised people in the audience who knew me. It was up to them to decide how they were going to behave after that. So, in a way, I felt very comfortable in that role of sort of ambassador because it gave me a way of coming out that was totally free of confrontation. I would walk into the dining hall and people would point and whisper, and I didn’t have to do anything about it.
So, let me think — the dances became very popular in my time here, and we eventually had to divide them into two different kinds of parties, because by the time I was a senior there were about four or five hundred people coming to the dances. It was felt that people who were struggling with their sexuality would not feel comfortable coming into a room with 250 gay people and 250 straight people exploring their sexuality. So we started having small dances about my third year here, some of them here in Wilder. They would be publicized by word of mouth. It was hoped that more people who might be shy would come. I would say at each dance maybe one or two people who had been sort of hesitant would show up. Not a lot, but if even one or two people were able to do that then that is a good thing to have happen. I’m sure I’ll think of more later.
Elizabeth Wright: I came to Oberlin because it had a Gilbert & Sullivan society. I was looking forward to being in co-ed dorms, and, of course, I was placed in the one all-women’s dorm on campus, which that first year of 1976 was Fairchild. It was marvelous. It turned out to be the best possible thing that could have happened, but at the time I was disappointed. I was not out at that time; I did not come out until the end of my junior year when I fell in love.
I remember the gay dances were the best; they were the most popular. At one point the Gay Union approached Fairchild and asked if we would be willing to host a dance in our dining area because it was a nice large space. We debated for quite a while because it was a women’s dorm and the fear was, at least from some of the women in the dorm, that if we had a Gay Union dance there, we would be perceived as the lesbian dorm. Ultimately, that was not a concern for most of the women there, but it was enough of a concern that we had to take a vote on it and worry about it. But it turned out to be a very successful dance and we were very glad that we had done it. Let’s see, what else do I remember?
Julie Kaufman: It was a wonderful dance; I remember it very vividly.
Elizabeth Wright: I remember walking by the Gay Union offices after I had come out and looking in and thinking, ‘I could go in there,’ and seeing a bunch of men and then deciding not to go in. I have to say I was much more involved in the women’s community at Oberlin than I was in the gay community. There was a group, however…
Julie Kaufman: LIPS!
Elizabeth Wright: LIPS, yes. Julie and I were lovers our senior year, end of our junior year, and we used to see signs for LIPS, Lesbians Into Preserving Sappho.
Julie Kaufman: It scared the hell out of us.
Elizabeth Wright: We were terrified of it.
Julie Kaufman: We had never been to a meeting.
Elizabeth Wright: But we used to fantasize about going to meetings with all these tough women sitting around who knew how to be lesbians.
Julie Kaufman: I came out while I was at Oberlin, but I wasn’t out in a major way. It wasn’t until I left Oberlin that I was sort of coming out to people left and right, but Oberlin definitely helped me along, just because the Gay Union was here. I told people that their student budget was the biggest of any student group on campus. I was scared to go to a LIPS meeting, but it was helpful to know it was there. My advisor, Karen Sutton, in psychology, I think had an incorrect idea of what lesbians were like, because I know she used to keep her books about homosexuality right next to her books on abnormal psychology on her shelf. I was open with her about my sexuality, and she met Beth. When her first daughter was born, they had a naming ceremony in their synagogue, and she invited us to come along. I stayed in touch with her throughout the years, so I felt that I had given her examples of normal psychology of lesbians, and that was sort of an interesting experience for both of us. I don’t have much more to say at the moment.
Elizabeth Wright: What else can I say? Oberlin was a very supportive place for us. It is our son who is yelling in the background. We met the father or rather donor of our son at Oberlin all those many years ago.
Gareth Fenley: Aren’t you going to say how you met?
Julie Kaufman: We met at Fairchild.
Elizabeth Wright: Oh, how we met? We disagree.
Julie Kaufman: We were in classes together and I ate at the Fairchild family style dining. I met her there, but she doesn’t remember me from that. She remembers meeting me in Robert Neil’s history class, and I don’t remember her from there.
Elizabeth Wright: We definitely met in geology class. We are both agreed on that.
Julie Kaufman: Yes, in geology we were field partners when we went out to look at rocks together. We sat with each other on the bus and chatted about stuff, so that was where we really got to know each other.